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Speeches By EPA Administrator

 

Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, Remarks to the Environmental Justice Steering Committee, As Prepared

03/24/2009
As prepared for delivery.

I’m pleased to have this chance to meet with all of you today.

In many ways, this is a return home for me. I started my career at the EPA as a staff level scientist in the late 80s and worked with the agency for 16 years. I then went on to serve as Commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection in New Jersey.

Environmental justice has been a concern of mine throughout my career – and in my own life.

I grew up in the 9th ward in New Orleans. These days, people know the 9th ward because it was one of the areas hit hardest by Hurricane Katrina.

My mother was there at that time – and she lost everything she had. It was one of the worst environmental disasters we’ve ever seen in this nation.

But the truth is that the environmental problems in the 9th ward were there well before Katrina.

Per capita, New Orleans leads the nation in the generation of hazardous industrial waste .“

There is an area of industrial plants that runs from Baton Rouge to New Orleans, and the people who live there call it “Cancer Alley.”

And there are places like the Agriculture Street Landfill Superfund Site, where the city built an elementary school and blocks of low-income housing.

Lead in the soil, toxic chemicals in the water, and dangerous particulates in the air – these have been problems for generations.

In fact, one of the reasons Katrina was so devastating was because the natural defenses of the marshes and wetlands south of New Orleans had been destabilized by siltation and cut by oil and gas lines.

This is the place where I grew up.

Before I ever knew about the EPA – before there even was an EPA – I had an understanding that environmental protection is about human protection. It’s about community protection and family protection.

It’s about safeguarding public health in the places where people live, work, play and learn.

In too many places in this country, the burden of pollution and environmental degradation falls disproportionately on low-income and minority communities – and most often, on the children in those communities.

I won’t stand by and accept the disparities any longer. I see it as part of my mission to show all Americans that this EPA works for them.

We have a unique opportunity to elevate environmental justice to a mainstream issue.

The inauguration of the first African American president, and my subsequent confirmation as the first African American Administrator of this Agency, has forever changed the face of environmentalism in this country.

It sends a clear signal that environmental protection does not come in one shape or size.

This is not just about protecting wilderness or saving the polar ice caps. This is about making our urban and suburban neighborhoods safe, clean places to live, work and raise a family.

It’s about ensuring that the water and air are clean no matter where you live.

And it’s about showing communities that have been left out and left behind that the issues of environmental protection are their issues, and our work is their work.

We also find ourselves in the midst of the worst economic crisis in generation. Low-income areas are feeling the full weight of the downturn.

Some people might be inclined to see this as a challenge. I believe, on the contrary, that it opens up a whole host of new opportunities.

The President has denounced the false choice between a green environment and a green economy.

He and many others have stood up to say that, in fact, our economic future and our environmental future are inextricably linked.

I would take that one step further and say that our economic justice and our environmental justice are linked.

We can create green jobs in the places where “green” and “jobs” are both needed most.

That, in turn, can help break the cycles of poverty that lead to crime, blight, drug use, and chronic violence.

We also have the chance to connect environmental justice to issues that are major concerns for the American people and pillars of the administration’s agenda.

For example, health care: The people that get sick at two and three times the average rate because of pollution in their neighborhoods are the same people that predominantly get their health care in emergency rooms.

That drives up costs system-wide and slows down much needed reform.

There is also education: When children are repeatedly missing school with asthma or allergies, it affects educational outcomes and long-term economic potential.

Not to mention the toll it takes on working parents that have to stay home to tend to their sick kids. These are setbacks we can’t afford in this or any economy.

In energy, low income communities stand to benefit the most from energy efficiency measures that can reduce overall load, cut costs, and lower the amounts of harmful emissions in our air.

One of the central initiatives of the American Recovery and Reinvestment act provides billions of dollars to weatherize low income housing. That will put more than 80,000 Americans to work at the same time that it saves families hundreds of dollars a year in energy bills and cuts harmful emissions.

In places like the 9th ward, better insulation will help prevent chronic problems like indoor mold. Mold thrives in the heat and humidity down there and can do serious respiratory damage to the residents of those homes – especially the children.

For all those reasons and more, I made a point in my first day memo to all EPA employees that we had to ensure that our efforts we helping people in underserved and highly vulnerable populations.

That was the thinking behind one of our very first initiatives – the effort to monitor dangerous particulates around schools.

Children absorb toxic pollutants in the same quantities as adults – meaning they ingest a much higher dose of toxics for their body weight.

They’re more vulnerable to asthma and other respiratory illnesses – and more susceptible to long-term complications that will affect them throughout their lives.

Ensuring that our children are not exposed to toxins and pollution or other environmental threats in their homes, in their schools, or anywhere else, is part of our core mission.

When First Lady Michelle Obama visited EPA earlier this year, she charged all of us with this responsibility, saying that “the health and safety of our children is our top priority.”

We have a fundamental obligation to step in. And – I think most people would agree – a common-sense reason to take action.

The same principles apply with respect to our tribal partners.

Environmental challenges affect American Indian communities in undeniable ways.

Hazardous waste sites and open dumps are rampant in tribal lands, exposing their residents to dangerous toxins and possible contamination of land and water.

Many tribal lands, economies and cultures are being threatened by climate change, from the loss of fish habitats in our rivers and streams to eroding shorelines threatening native Alaskan villages.

And in the face of these needs, less than 5% of tribes actually implement federal environmental programs.

We have a long way to go to ensure that they are partners in this effort.

I’m proud that I can be with you to share some good news about our environmental justice work.

I’m announcing today $800,000 in grants to fund environmental justice community projects that will address environmental and public health issues in 28 states.

Grant recipients will use the money to create local projects for healthy, sustainable communities.

Projects like identifying air pollutants from truck emissions and other sources at Port Newark in New Brunswick, N.J.; educating young people about the harmful effects of toxic substances like asbestos and lead paint in Chicago; teaching Albuquerque, N.M. residents and businesses how to properly dispose of hazardous waste; and conducting residential energy efficiency workshops and training in Kansas City, Mo. for Spanish- speaking communities.

These are just a few examples.

These grants mark the beginning of a full-scale revitalization of what we do and how we think about environmental justice.

This is not an issue we can afford to relegate to the margins. It has to be part of our thinking in every decision we make.

Right now, we have much to do to restore the country’s faith in our ability to protect the air, water, and land.

We have to ensure that communities directly impacted by environmental degradation have not only a voice, but a seat at the decision-making table.

When I was in New Jersey I worked closely with the Ramapough community in Upper Ringwood. The people there lived on a Superfund site, and I worked with them on the ongoing cleanup efforts of chemicals that were causing asthma, cancer and other illnesses in their people.

When I was nominated to lead EPA, a woman named Vivian Milligan, one of the most active members of the Ramapough community called me and cautioned me with one simple request: “Don’t forget about us.”

So, when I went before the Senate, I asked Vivian and the other members of the community to join me.

Not to offer them empty promises, but to send a very clear message. It’s the message I have given to everyone I have met with since January. And it’s the same message that I am here to share with you today:

That message is that EPA is back on the job.

That means that the work you do – that the work you have been doing for years – has nothing less than my full support. And the full support of the President of the United States.

The EPA is once again guided by an ambitious vision of public health protection and environmental preservation – and environmental justice is central to that vision.

I can’t think of a higher calling then coming back here to work with all of you to address the urgent, ongoing and – in many cases – long overdue issues we face.

I look forward to working with you and making real progress in the months and years ahead.

Thank you again.